NORDLAND — When Rachel Fordham tells the story of a woman from the 19th century, she doesn’t feel so far away from her.
“As I write historical fiction, I realize the backdrop is different. But people still struggle with the same things: acceptance, letting go of the past,” said Fordham, whose new book, “A Lady in Attendance,” is a historical novel, a romance and an affectionate portrait of a dentist.
First we meet Hazel, a woman who’s just served five years in a women’s reformatory. She was incarcerated for a theft she didn’t commit; she has a past involving other deeds she’s ashamed of.
While Hazel didn’t commit the crime that got her into the reformatory, she did recklessly flirt — and then some — with several men in her upstate New York hometown. That tarnished her reputation. The men in her circle, along with her parents, shunned her, refusing to help her clear her name after she’d finished doing her time.
So Hazel changes her surname and gets a job as a lady in attendance — what we now call a dental assistant — for Dr. Gilbert Watts, a dentist who has less than great rapport with his patients.
Gilbert is shy, but a good guy. He and Hazel gradually become friends, but she remains guarded. She has serious doubts about whether he’d want to be her friend, or perhaps her romantic partner, if he knew her history.
She’s an excellent practitioner, however, putting Gilbert’s patients at ease.
In an interview at her home on Marrowstone Island, Fordham talked about her inspirations: the discovery of the reformatory movement of the late 1800s, a visit to a dental museum in Buffalo, N.Y., and her husband, dentist Tyler Fordham.
Readers, naturally, like to ask about him. Is he romantic, like the dentist in the novel?
Yes, and he’s also her partner in raising their children, ages 5 to 15. So, unlike the novel, there’s a whole lot of regular life between romantic moments, Fordham said, smiling.
She and Tyler have been married 17 years, and no, they didn’t start out working together in his dental office. They met in college in Idaho, and when Tyler went to dental school in Buffalo, N.Y., the two of them saw an exhibit of dental instruments from many decades past.
“I realized that dental assisting was a field that women were involved in, but I’d never seen featured in a historical novel,” Fordham writes in her author’s note.
“I also really wanted to write a dentist as my leading man who was not evil or a bumbling fool. Books and movies rarely show dentists in a good light, and I decided I wanted to! It became my mission.”
Years proceeded to fly by. The Fordhams moved to the North Olympic Peninsula. They had kids, welcomed foster children and found a big house on Marrowstone. The novelist published her first book in 2018, “The Hope of Azure Springs,” about a teenager in Iowa who, after being orphaned, goes searching for her long-lost sister.
Fordham started writing “A Lady in Attendance” a number of years ago, then put it down to attend to the many other events in her life. She landed a three-book deal with Revell, a division of Baker Publishing, and last summer released “A Life Once Dreamed,” the story of Agnes Pratt. She’s a woman who, seeking a new start, moves to the Dakota Territory mining and lumber town of Penance.
Fordham’s novels can be ordered from local bookstores or directly from Baker at bakerpublishinggroup.com.
In the midst of the pandemic, Fordham didn’t do much publicity for “Dreamed.” She did begin home-schooling her kids, a choice she’s glad she made. Her children have become closer, she believes.
“They’re getting along even better. I think they realize we’re in this together,” Fordham said.
Through it all, the author kept writing and working with her editors at Revell. Her household is a loud place, yes, but that doesn’t faze her.
“I’ve had noise around me so long, it feels normal,” Fordham said.
Another historical novel is about an Iowa farm heroine. The working title is “My Road to You,” though that could change before the summer 2022 release, she said.
This time Norah is the heroine; it’s 1880 and she’s set to wed a guy she doesn’t love. The marriage will rescue her family’s farm, so she’s made peace with the plan.
Then Norah finds a badly injured man on her property. He’s got nothing. She makes up her mind to nurse him back to health.
That decision, just like those we make these days, affects all of her plans from that point forward.
Jefferson County senior reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3509 or [email protected]